Willy Street Chamber Players Continue to Impress

Musical Madison keeps giving us new summer blooms


The short—and frequently brilliant—summer season of the Willy Street Chamber Players  (pictured above) continued Friday night (July 21). In less than three years the core group of a half-dozen of our city’s sharpest and most creative young musicians have developed an almost rabidly faithful following…and the threat of severe storms during the night did little, if anything, to limit the size of the audience at Immanuel Lutheran Church on Spaight Street.

I blinked twice and missed their entire inaugural season in 2015, and made a point to get to at least one (!) program last year. That was enough to hook me, but work and vacation plans again limited yours truly to but this single auditing. I had hoped to catch their final program on July 28 (featuring Golijov’s stunning Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for clarinet and strings), but in the end it almost doesn’t matter which concert you attend of the WSCP: Their programming is so stimulating and the performance standards so high you are bound to come away edified and satisfied. Throw in the fact that they start at 6 and endeavor to end at 7:30, and add an informal reception where the artists will chat with you as long as you care to stay, and you’ve got a winning recipe for continued success.

All of that “throat-clearing” above is partly to say that I ended up thrilled that I “had” to attend last Friday and not the next one. The major draw was the Piano Quintet of Shostakovich…but I left deeply moved by two works thoroughly unknown to me.

The program was slated to open with selections from “The Juliet Letters” of Elvis Costello and the Brodsk y Quartet, followed by “On Wenlock Edge” by Vaughan Williams. Violinist Eleanor Bartsch drew the first straw in introducing the first work (they take turns doing this—and they do it well—in lieu of written program notes). But she began by saying that the order of the first two pieces had been reversed, and went on to give a fabulously detailed, and even big-picture, perspective of this 1909 work. The texts were poems by A.E.Housman, written in 1896—and even though Vaughan Williams’ setting preceded World War I by five years, the six settings for tenor and piano quintet seemed eerily prescient at times of the poems Wilfred Owens wrote from those war-battered trenches, later used by Britten in his searing War Requiem.

The soloist was J. Adam Shelton, well known locally for his graduate work here at UW and he was part of the first year of the Madison Opera Studio. His career continues to grow steadily and he had ample opportunities to show us why. There were a handful of moments when he could unleash a fully operatic sound, but he was just as impressive in the dynamically shaded sections. New to me was the pianist, Jason Kutz, also a product of the Mead Witter School of Music’s graduate studies. The string players were Bartsch and Beth Larson on violin, Rachel Hauser on viola and cellist Lindsey Crabb. (All the string players are listed as core members of the WSCP, along with violinist/artistic director Paran Amirinazari and cellist Mark Bridges).

Vaughan Williams has long been a favorite composer of mine, but somehow I’d never gotten around to this opus. Fascinating to hear how often Vaughan Williams opted for piano with voice, or strings with voice, with the massed forces relatively rarely employed. One couldn’t help but note one quibble with the otherwise wonderful venue of Immanuel Lutheran: with its exceptionally high ceiling, loud, sustained sections tend to get blurred acoustically. It bothered me a little more last year; after Friday’s event I can live with it.

Next came the selections from the 1993 “The Juliet Letters.” Crabb related the fascinating details of the genesis of the work; the bottom line is that when Costello met the Brodsky Quartet, they knew they wanted to collaborate. He shared what intrigued him about the tale of a man actually receiving letters addressed to the Juliet. Ultimately this just became a starting point, and Costello and all the quartet members contributed text and music to the project. Somewhere in the fourth song (of five), I began to wonder two things: If I didn’t know this was by Costello, et al, who would I attribute it to; and why did it switch places on the program with “Wenlock?”

I quickly decided the first question wasn’t worth pondering at length. There was a moment in the third setting, “Who Do You Think You Are?” that momentarily brought the William Walton/Judith Sitwell Façade to mind. Ah, but the second question was answered at the reception by Shelton: the reversal of the two works better suited his ability to execute the tessitura (higher in the Vaughan Williams, in general). He also discovered what I had felt about it: it seemed to make more sense emotionally.

And lest we forget, let it be shouted from the rooftops—the WSCP provided texts…and left the lights up so the audience could follow!

There was no spoken introduction for the Shostakovich, which seemed odd, until it became clear that the players wanted to try and keep to their usual schedule, particularly with the continuing threat of heavy rain at the least. This time the lineup was Kutz on piano, Larson and Amirinazari violins, with Hauser on viola and Bridges on cello. The Shostakovich is a pillar of a masterpiece, the half-hour 1940 work almost symphonic at times. The penultimate fourth movement, Lento, taxed the upper strings at times, but otherwise this was a confident reading, and once again Kutz made a case for us to keep an eye (and ears) on him. Only one unanswered question remained following the final standing ovation: Will the WSCP become one of those quasi-ephemeral series that blooms for a few brief summers, or will it take root and become yet another of Madison’s growing list of cherished summertime musical events? Oh never mind…just get to this Friday’s concert while you can!

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